A Moment

Last week I was in the grocery store, stocking up for a football playoff game, waiting in the checkout line. The cashier was chatting with a young boy who was holding a balloon in the shape of Tom Brady’s jersey. “Do you read?” the cashier asked. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “What is the last thing you read?” Silence ensued. The cashier gave the boy some advice about books and about life. The mother gave an excuse for her son: they were getting ready for a party to celebrate his 8th birthday, which was that day. The people in line wished the boy, “Happy birthday.” “How many are coming to your party?” continued the cashier. She continued, “I didn’t give him a party for his eighth birthday. I said he could wait for next year.” The man behind me shifted on his feet, silent. “I never got to give him another birthday.” I stopped swiping my card and looked the cashier in the eye. Sometimes, you expect grief to strike at you, seize at your heart, strangle your ability to live in the moment, overcome with bittersweet memories of the past. Those are the days we anticipate, birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the holidays. Sometimes, however, grief surprises you unawares, in small moments that you didn’t anticipate. I shared my shorthand speech, adding, “I still get surprised by what makes me sad.” “It’s just that the boy, he was eight …” “Eleven,” said his mother, smiling down on her son. The conversation continued as the cashier finished and packed away cupcakes and juice boxes. The boy and his mother pushed the cart toward the parking lot. As the cashier turned to me, words tumbling from her mouth: “Two years ago, my son died on Halloween. He was eight.” And then, quickly, “I don’t know why I told you that.” But I knew. I recognized that speech. It was shorthand, the bare facts of a story of heartache and unimaginable loss. This was the way she always began the story of her son, just as I start the story of my son. He was 10 weeks old: he died 25 years ago on New Year’s Eve. Every time she shared her story, she was finding the words and the way to weave that heartache into her own life. I left the store, thinking of the cashier and her son, and of all the people who mourn. I appreciated that the people behind us gave us that moment. That she could tell a random person about her son. That she could try, one more time, to practice the words that will help her toward some kind of peace.

-Kathy Whelan